In the autumn of 1962, George Vandeman, founder and speaker of the It Is Written television program, was scheduled to conduct a nightly month-long evangelistic series in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Vandeman had already made his mark in religious television, eventually broadcasting in more than 150 countries with weekly viewership of more than 1.5 million globally.
I rehearse that brief bio as a run-up to a fascinating story. A unique problem arose as plans were developing for the “crusade” in Los Angeles. Space. True, there were 93,000 seats in the Arena stands in 1962, and with additional seating on the field, the capacity was above 100,000. But there were more than 100,000 Seventh-day Adventists in southern California. Where would the guests sit? Those seeking salvation? Those seeking to understand the times? Those curious about prophecy?
Seventh-day Adventists were born with an intense collective fascination for evangelism and if a strong majority of them should respond to the invitation to attend the Memorial Arena it could defeat the very purpose of the gathering – there would be no room for inquirers, seekers, the interested, the lost.
Never one to be off-put by a problem, Vandeman and his team devised a radical strategy: If you were a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (which was sponsoring the event), you could only get in the Arena gate if you brought a non-member with you. Oops. Predictably, that didn’t set well with some of the saints. “Come on, this is ‘public evangelism’; what do you mean I can’t attend!”
Ans: “You are welcome to attend; just bring a guest…a non-believer, a seeker, a friend who is truly desiring to understand the heart of God.” “But I don’t know anyone like that. Are you going to physically keep me out of the place?”
Vandeman’s rule generated some intense discussions. Not all were friendly. Not all were civil. Not all were even Christian. But Vandeman pretty much got his way. Not only was there a great harvest, but it was also a learning time for our churches in So Cal. The major take-away was this: A high percentage of our members do not have a circle of friends whom they feel comfortable inviting to church. Even more significant: The longer you have been a member of the Adventist Church the fewer friends you have in that circle. We feel more comfortable with folks just like us, so we tend to hang out with our own kind.
Of course, since 1962 that has all changed, right? We have all become very intentional about putting our arms around those Jesus wants to love through us, right? Next time the doors open in our church we’ll be sitting in a circle of friends Jesus has asked us to love, right? Right!
By Don Jacobsen